Sunday, November 7, 2010

Reflections on the "Far-left leanings" of the 11th Congressional District

I was recently quoted in the Asheville Citizen-Times prognosticating about Heath Shuler's probable stature in the next Congress  Here's what I said: “He's probably in a better position than a lot of Democrats are because he is a conservative Democrat and made no bones about it,” Cooper said. “He could come out smelling pretty nice because he's the kind of Democrat who could maintain some power, even in the minority party."

Putting aside my odd phrasing of "smelling pretty nice," (what was I thinking?), I still agree with this statement and as he always does, John Boyle quoted me accurately and fairly. 

I was very pleased to see that an interested citizen took the time to write the AC-T about my statement.  In a letter to the editor, the reader stated that "Given the far-left leanings of House District 11, Rep. Shuler will move to the left joining the Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi wing, not necessarily because he is a “true believer” but because that is what will be required to fend off challenges from the far-left. Should Rep. Shuler fail to move left, Councilman Cecil Bothwell and others will be waiting in the wings for the 2012 primaries."

I am always pleased when people take the time to write letters to the editor (so much so that Gibbs, our friend Moshe and I published a paper about letters to the editor in NC newspapers)* and I appreciate Mr. Arnold's perspective on his district.  But, as the readers of this blog know, I generally want to solve disagreements like this with data and the most obvious way to test the reader's claim vs. mine is to examine the voter registration statistics in the 11th Congressional District.  If there are a lot more Democrats in our district than their are in the state as a whole, then that would be a good sign that the reader's right and I'm wrong.  If we find the opposite, well, we'll see....

According to the NC Board of Elections, there indeed are more Democrats than Republicans in our district (40% Democrat vs. 33% Republican w/ 28% Independent or Libertarian).  When comparing this to the statewide numbers, however, we see that our district is actually less Democratic than the state as a whole.  In North Carolina, 45% of voters are Democrats, 32% are Republicans and 24% are Independents or Libertarians).  Obviously it is possible that more of our independents are liberal than they are in the rest of the state, but I have never seen any evidence suggesting this is true (if anything, the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction).  Of course, partisanship and ideology don't always map onto each other so it's also possible that people in our district are more liberal despite not being more Democratic.  Again, however, my read of available data on this suggests that this is not true.

So, why did the reader (who is politically engaged enough to write a letter to the editor and reasonable enough to write a well-written, well-argued letter) believe this?  My guess--because he lives in Asheville.  As we've found in many surveys, Asheville is not like the rest of the district.  Asheville is indeed more liberal than many places in North Carolina and only 27% of Buncombe County voters are Republicans.  It's very easy to assume that Asheville=the 11th Congressional District, but the reality is that our district is a fairly large one and includes many counties that are far more Republican and conservative than Buncombe County.

The balance of the evidence suggest that while Asheville may be "the San Francisco of the South," the rest of the 11th Congressional District would be pretty out-of-place in the Bay Area. 

* I really do mean this.  Compare the quality of the discourse in letters to the editor to Internet comments on the same story.  Letters to the editor are almost always better written, better argued and better informed than their counterparts on the Internet (except for the commenters on this blog, of course).


  1. I would take issue with the statement that the 11th district is more conservative than other areas of NC. For example, while Ralph Hise and Jim Davis defeated incumbent Dem. Senators Joe Sam Queen and John Snow, none of the House districts flipped outside of the seat of Rep. Jane Whilden in Buncombe County. Statewide the Republicans picked up a huge number of seats to take 68 seats in the NC House. If this area was more conservative, I would suspect more House seats in the West would have flipped. The Whilden seat was designed to be Republican leaning in the first place and but for the Democratic landslide of 2008 in Buncombe, Moffitt would have won the seat back then.

  2. Thanks for the note, Robin and my apologies for the delay in getting it posted here (still getting accustomed to the blogger software). Your point is a good one and I agree that state legislative seats are an important indicators of partisanship. Still--I think the most direct way to test this is to look at the partisan makeup of the district. I'll see if I can come up with a comparison of all districts in NC based on partisanship soon.